Hospitality and Entertaining Angels

The week of the 9/11 terror attacks, I escaped from an abusive marriage.  I gathered up my three small children; my youngest son was not yet walking. We presented ourselves at the pastor’s office of a church I had visited exactly once. “I don’t have anywhere to go,” I said plainly.

Pastor Bob and Vickie welcomed us into their home, without hesitation (or if they did hesitate, they didn’t show it.) They cared for my screaming, traumatized children while I rushed around the city, securing an apartment, a job, and legal assistance. It took about a week, which I’m sure felt much, much longer to my hosts. Many other church members showed up to help as well, bringing food, furniture, toys, gift cards, everything we needed to set up a new household.

We never looked at another church; my children grew up there. When I remarried, my husband became part of the church family as well. Even today, after moving 1,600 miles away, we still consider Bob and Vickie to be close friends.

Hospitality – providing food, shelter, and comfort to the needy – is a serious charge for the believer. On the day of judgment, Christ will say to his followers who showed hospitality, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” To those who did not show hospitality, Christ will say the opposite: “as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”  (Matthew 25:40, 45). This is both humbling and terrifying.

The book of Hebrews makes a similar point:  “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). It sounds like something conjured by the Brothers Grimm – an enchantress who disguises herself as an old hag, a king who puts on beggar’s rags. In fairy tales, these veiled visitors are testing their hosts, trying to see who will show kindness to the poor and pitiful, with no expectation of return.

Of course, the author of Hebrews was probably thinking of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who fed and sheltered two angels disguised as travelers.  The next morning, the angels rescued Lot and his family out of Sodom. Then they destroyed the city (Genesis 19:1-29).  But how often does that really happen, the entertaining of angels? And what does it mean for Christian hospitality today?

When we stayed with Bob and Vickie, my middle son was in the middle of potty-training. This had a predictable, if embarrassing, impact on their carpet. My kids and I were no angels, real or metaphorical. But I believe that angels were nonetheless present: watching, even helping us. All the elements of our new life fell into place while we sheltered in their home. Thinking back to the admonitions in Matthew, I sure didn’t feel like Christ to Bob and Vickie. But they felt very much like Christ to me.

More recently, my husband and I became aware of a single mom, with three young children, who needed a place to stay. We felt prompted to offer the back bedroom, recently vacated by our last son going to college. Some people thought we were crazy, or that we must “love chaos.”  But in obedience to Scripture, and in honor of what Bob and Vickie did for me, we opened our doors.

I won’t lie, it was a difficult couple of months. The house was always noisy, the fridge overstuffed. We poured our hearts into intense conversations, gave advice that was not always well-received.  We tripped over toys, cooked massive meals, refined our “time-out” techniques. None of us were angels. And yet, the presence of the Spirit of Christ was palpable. I felt angels watching us, and watching over us.

Miraculously, our guest was restored to her husband.  In the process, my husband and I strengthened our commitment and appreciation for each other. By caring for young children together, we gained insight into our own troubled past as a blended family.  We walked through repentance and healing, and experienced fresh communion with the Lord. We also experienced deep thankfulness when our guests stabilized and moved out, praise God!

One evening we were visiting with another couple, who commented that they had been in a “spiritual dry season” for some time.  They asked for prayer, that their relationships with God would be renewed.  My husband and I suggested that they invite another family to come stay with them. Our friends thought we were joking, and replied, “Oh, we would never do that.”  But we were dead serious.

When Christ said, “You did it to me,” we usually read, “you did it for me.” Sure, when we show hospitality, we do it “for” Christ.  And the recipients may or may not be Christians, so how can they “be” Christ? But there is a sense in which the Spirit of Christ is present in the moment of hospitality.  Christ is manifested; our hands become his hands. Guest and host are both changed.

True hospitality is not easy, especially in our current, individualistic culture.  Opening our home – which is really God’s home – forces us to rely upon God’s strength rather than our own. And in this place of submission and struggle, we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,” urging us to lay aside every encumbrance that will keep us from the good works God has given us to do (Hebrews 12:1). I have to believe that angels also cheer us on… both those who are invisible, and those who are in disguise.